Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.
Del Rey, Random House, Inc., New York, 2007.
MG fantasy, 578 pages.
Twelve-year-old Zanna and her best friend Deeba find a secret portal that takes them from their hometown of London to mysterious UnLunDun, where the giraffes are carnivorous and Zanna is the Chosen One with a special destiny… right?
I don’t know why this book doesn’t get mentioned more often. Perhaps because it is so long for a middle grade read, or because Mieville isn’t known for his children’s literature. In fact, I suspect many people don’t even realize it’s a children’s book, especially other editions that have a different cover. The cover needs to be somewhat vague, because this is a book of many twists and turns.
In fact, it’s impossible to discuss the book, especially the diverse aspects, without revealing one major spoiler which occurs about a hundred pages in. If you wish to avoid spoilers, scroll down to the bottom for my general thoughts and recommendations.
This book has a slow build with Zanna and Deeba gradually learning about the existence of UnLunDun through strange occurrences in their daily life, to finally finding themselves there. They’re told that in order to return home and find out what’s going on, they have to find the Propheseers, and once they do, they meet a centuries-old magical book that claims Zanna is the Shwazzy, or Chosen One. Of course, being the Shwazzy comes with all sorts of fantastical benefits and adventures as would befit our blonde, unusually-named heroine, right?
But Zanna seems a bit stressed out by all the magical adventures. She succumbs to the big bad even before the quests really start, and the leaders of UnLunDun don’t know what to do next. Enter Deeba. She might have curly hair and an ethnic, not magically unusual, name, but she’s made friends while tagging along with Zanna and doesn’t want to see this world end just because her friend passed out.
So Deeba takes charge, but she’s not exactly listening to the magic book. After all, it was wrong about Zanna, right? As she and her newfound friends try to save the world of UnLunDun and get back home before her parents forget her very existence, she also unwittingly becomes the UnChosen, the center of a movement to change the magical city.
I was so tickled by this twist, which at the time was delightfully new to me. Why are there not more books about the chosen one not making the cut and a pluckier kid stepping in? Of course by now there are, but in 2007 the concept was more novel. I’ll just give away one more – Deeba starts out on Zanna’s intricate, multi-step quest, decides there’s no time for this, and jumps to the last bit instead. I cheered for that one!
Although this novel subverts the genre, it also adheres to it in curious ways. Deeba has her own quest and intricate character arc, and there are many moving pieces that come together in a fascinating and satisfying conclusion.
Try though I might, so far I haven’t been able to successfully read this aloud. While there are some other books with a slow initial build and payoff part-way into the book, a hundred plus pages is a very long time to read before getting into the main story’s action. And in general, 500+ pages is a lot to ask of a MG reader, even if there are short chapters and fun illustrations. That may be why the publisher has remarketed this toward teens and adults.
Certainly, older readers can also enjoy this book – it’s best read by readers with stamina who already enjoy fantasy. Students new to fantasy won’t be able to enjoy the way Mieville subverts our expectations, and students who struggle with longer books might give up before they get to the best parts.
There are some intense parts in this book. A few I’ve mentioned in spoilers above, but also, a character is homeless, death, loss, and serious injuries occur, families are separated, some imagery used is not for the squeamish, the environmental impact of our poor choices is discussed, and probably a few others I’m forgetting.
My first time reading this book, I was taking a long flight and bought this at the airport. It must have recently been released in softcover because usually the airport doesn’t have a great selection of either fantasy or diverse novels. The flight took me only halfway through the book, but I just had to know what happened to UnLunDun!
Over the years since, I’ve revisited the story a half dozen times, and while I know the major plot twists now, this is still an engaging novel. Every reread I find something new that was overlooked before. The extreme length and slow build might put most readers off, but I’d still suggest it to readers with excellent stamina and a delight in twists on urban fantasy’s tropes. Over ten years after publication, I don’t have much hope of a sequel, but still hope for one that would tie up the few loose ends left and show us more of Mieville’s magical city.